Using the Long Arm of the Law to Cut College Drinking

More communities and colleges are joining forces to stop on- and off-campus alcohol abuse.

Some communities are tiring of problem drinking among students, prompting the help of local law enforcement. (Photo: Sam Diephuis/Getty Images)

Sep 25, 2012· 3 MIN READ
Shari Roan is an award-winning health writer based in Southern California.

There's an uprising going on in some college towns this fall. The unrest is coming from townsfolk tired of the rude, costly and sad behavior surrounding college binging and underage drinking.

After trying gentler methods to curb alcohol abuse on and around college campuses, the tactics seem to be turning decidedly harsher, with several cities instructing law enforcement personnel to take a stand. Some examples:

  • Indiana University has joined five other colleges in the state in using Indiana excise officers to crack down on underage drinking in college towns. Officers are blanketing areas where students party and issuing citations for alcohol-related violations. Excise officers are part of the law enforcement division of the Alcohol & Tobacco Commission in Indiana. Two weeks ago, excise police arrested 188 people around the university during a three-day sweep. The arrests were for such violations as underage drinking, public intoxication, use of fake identification and providing alcohol to minors. The majority of the arrests—110—occurred in parking lots where football fans were tailgating before an Indiana State football game. The law enforcement crackdown on drinking is part of a program that is also being implemented at Ball State, Butler, Indiana State, Notre Dame and Purdue.
  • Boston University has implemented "alcohol enforcement patrols" to tour known party neighborhoods and cite students for public intoxication, loud parties and other infractions, according to the Web site The program is supported by Brookline, Mass. police officers.
  • Tallahassee, Fla., city officials are using a $7,380 grant to fund police alcohol enforcement patrols over nine weeks this fall. The program will target locations known for parties and heavy drinking—private homes and bars. The grant was awarded to the city by Responsible Decision Making Coalition, a group comprised of parents, law enforcement officials, health experts, community leaders and college administrators aimed at encouraging students to make healthy and safe choices.

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Many colleges are trying to address alcohol misuse at the start of the school year, when drinking rates are highest due to welcome parties, Greek rush and football games, Laura L. Forbes, an associate professor at the University of Alabama, Birmingham's Health Education Program, told TakePart. Forbes is also chair of the American College Health Association's Alcohol Tobacco and Other Drug Coalition.

"National data show that since the early '90s there has been a decline and leveling off with drinking," she says. "But we know there is still a problem. And campuses have adopted more ways to intervene with students."

According to data released on Monday, the rates of binge drinking and heavy drinking among underage Americans (not just college students) has declined since 2002. But alcohol abuse among students remains a vexing problem for college administrators and communities. Drinking among college students ages 18 to 24 causes an estimated 1,825 student deaths, almost 600,000 student injuries, close to 700,000 assaults and about 97,000 cases of sexual assault or date rape each year, according to a 2009 report from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

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Stories of the fallout from reckless drinking appear almost daily this time of year. Earlier this month, a Fresno State a freshman died after a night of heavy drinking in a frat house. At Purdue University, a freshman died recently after falling from the fifth-floor balcony of an Indianapolis apartment, possibly trying to flee from police at a party where police say there was underage drinking, according to the Indianapolis Star.

The use of law enforcement to address college drinking problems has been controversial. But, Forbes says, more college administrators and communities are joining forces to address the problem.

"It's not just a campus problem. It's a community problem," Forbes says. "The major recommendation now, which has proven to be effective, is to form a campus-community task force. That is a key element."

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The coalitions share information, plan strategies and try to avoid the blame game, she says. In the past, colleges often blamed communities—such as bar owners—for the drinking problem, while community leaders blame colleges for not keeping students in check.

When colleges and communities work together, she says, the results are usually eye-opening. For example, college administrators may not know the extent of the fake ID problem until they consult with city bar owners.

"We need to have that dialogue and understanding," Forbes says.

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Not all anti-alcohol programs are punitive. A growing number of colleges are providing alcohol education classes to incoming freshman and are asking them to take a confidential alcohol self-assessment test. Others are instituting alcohol-free dorms to group together students who are trying to avoid the partying scene. "It's an education and liability-prevention strategy," she says.

A recent study illustrated the uphill battle colleges and communities face in trying to deflate the culture of heavy drinking. According to a recent study presented at the American Sociological Association meeting in Denver, college students who were binge drinkers had higher levels of social satisfaction compared to their peers who didn't binge.

It's important for colleges to do what they do best and take a scholarly approach to the issue, Forbes says. Colleges that collect data on alcohol abuse and drinking-related problems need to openly share those statistics with the community. And college administrators need to teach incoming college freshman about the hazards surrounding drinking.

"When it comes to alcohol, the major factor is: Knowledge is power," she adds.

Do you think colleges and communities should use police sweeps to reduce problem drinking among students?